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“The word Amalek is now as common as ‘woke’ was yesterday,” a friend in America wrote me a few days ago. This was after Prime Minister Netanyahu’s October 28 speech to the Israeli people in which he said, referring to their soldiers now fighting in Gaza:
They are longing to recompense the murderers for the horrific acts they perpetrated on our children, our women, our parents, and our friends. They are committed to eradicating this evil from the world, for our existence, and I add, for the good of all humanity. The entire people, and the leadership of the people, embrace them and believe in them. “Remember what Amalek did to you.” We remember and we fight.
The prime minister was quoting the Bible. There, in the 25th chapter of Deuteronomy, Moses tells the Israelites on the eve of their invasion of Canaan (the translation is from Robert Alter’s The Hebrew Bible):
Remember what Amalek did to you on the way when you came out of Egypt, how he fell upon you on the way and cut down all the stragglers, with you famished and exhausted, and he did not fear God. And it shall be, when the Lord your God grants you respite from all your enemies around in the land that the Lord your God is about to give you in estate to take hold of it, you shall wipe out the remembrances of Amalek from under the heavens. You shall not forget.
What Amalek did, the Bible relates, was to ambush a weary people that posed no threat to it and kill its weakest and most defenseless members who had fallen behind the main body on its trek through the desert. This was murder for murder’s sake, not a legitimate, or even illegitimate, act of war. Those who wage war against one can be negotiated with and made peace with. Those who kill one for their pleasure cannot be. They must be killed themselves until none of them is left.
The Amalekites are mentioned often in the Bible as a tribe of desert raiders who inhabit today’s northern Negev, not far from the Gaza Strip, and live by plunder. In a passage in the book of Judges, they are described as looting the Israelites’ livestock and ravaging their crops as far as the city of Gaza itself. Elsewhere, in 1Samuel, we are told there how when David, then a rebel against King Saul, was gone with his fighting men from the town of Tziklag that was their base, the Amalekites “struck Tziklag and burned it in fire. And they took the women captive, from the oldest to the youngest, putting none to death, and drove them off and went their way. And David and his men with him came to the town and behold, it was burned on fire, and their wives and their sons and their daughters were taken captive. And David and the troops who were with him raised their voices and wept until there was no strength left for them to weep.”
Next to Hamas, the Amalekites at Tziklag, who killed no one but simply took hostages, presumably to be held for ransom, come out looking good. Is there any point in comparing them to Hamas, as Israel’s prime minister and others have done?
Some say no. One of them, Joshua Krug, writes in the Jewish News of Northern California:
Netanyahyu and so many of us regard the actions of Hamas on October 7 as evil. However, to invoke Amalek in such a way and without elucidation now is not appropriate. . . . Within the biblical text, God commands the Israelites to regard the hateful Amalekites as the ultimate mortal enemy whose annihilation they must seek for eternity. The state of Israel shouldn’t wish to be portrayed in the same way. The word in contemporary parlance for what the ancient text commands is “genocide.” Netanyahu’s invocation of Amalek tapped into the narrative power of a dog whistle. . . . His linguistic choice is cynical, manipulative, and dangerous.
And the magazine Mother Jones observed on November 3:
The Amalek reference is one of many comments by Israeli leaders that serve to help justify a devastating response to the brutal Hamas attack of October 7. . . . More than 9,000 people in Gaza have now been killed, including more than 3,700 children, according to the Gaza health ministry. . . . Forty-seven percent of Israeli Jews said in a poll conducted last month that Israel should “not at all” consider the “suffering of the civilian Palestinian population in Gaza” in the next phase of fighting. Casting the enemy as Amalek reinforces that attitude.
The magazine cited Joshua Shanes, a professor of Jewish studies at the College of Charleston, as saying that, “calling the enemy Amalek will make it more difficult for people who try to defend the position that Israel is not involved in a crime against humanity or a genocidal act.” And it quoted anti-Israel commentator Peter Beinart, an avowedly observant Jew, as observing, “The wisdom of rabbinic tradition was to declare that we no longer know who Amalek is because that restrains the genocidal plain meaning of the biblical text. So in claiming that he knows who Amalek is, [Netanyahu] is undoing the moral scaffolding created by Jewish tradition and asserting a biblical literalism that is alien to the Judaism of the last 2,000 and . . . is frankly terrifying.”
I beg to differ.
While the Bible’s call to exterminate all Amalekites is indeed a call for genocide, the charge made against Israel of genocidal behavior or intentions toward the Palestinians, which by now has a history of decades, is so lunatic a form of Holocaust counter-projection (you say you were the victims of genocide? Why, it’s you who are committing it!) that it is all but pointless to argue with it. Nevertheless, a few figures are in order.
Out of an estimated two million Gazans, Mother Jones stated nearly a month after the Israeli assault on Gaza began, 9,000 according to Hamas had been killed—of which one-half to two-thirds, to judge from statistics for previous Israeli strikes against Gaza, can be presumed to have been innocent victims rather than Hamas fighters. This was some .003 percent of Gaza’s population, 99.997 percent of which was thus still alive. That’s still a sad loss of life, but genocide? Had Israel wanted to kill as many rather than as few Gazans as possible, it could easily have killed 9,000 in the first minutes of its air campaign a month ago. One has to be thoroughly shameless even to speculate that it might be acting in Gaza from genocidal motives.
Hamas, however, is not a people. It is an organization. And when Netanyahu compared it to Amalek, he was calling for the extermination of an organization every last one of whose combatants Israel does want to see dead and with good reason.
This is something that much of the world has difficulty understanding. It sees the war between Israel and Hamas as a war like any other, and wars, as is known, are most often ended by ceasefires and negotiated settlements. Hamas may indeed have been very naughty, such a view of the conflict holds, but in the end Israel should sit down and shake hands with it. After all, as the old saw goes, peace is made between enemies.
Which is the whole point of the comparison with Amalek. Hamas is not just an enemy. It is an enemy that obeys no rules of war, that has no human restraints, that does not know the meaning of mercy, that sadistically delights in the spilling of blood for its own sake. One does not negotiate with such an enemy. One does not make peace with it. One does not make excuses for it because there is a context in which its behavior needs be understood. One extirpates it as best one can, and if innocent people are killed in the process, they too, tragically, owe their deaths to it.
“The rabbis,” says Mother Jones in the name of the human rights activist Rabbi Jill Jacobs, “generally agree that Amalek no longer exists, and that references to it do not provide a justification for attacking anyone.”
But Amalek does exist, not as a people that has survived until modern times but as the biblical concept of an extremity of savagery that cannot and must not be lived with. No, the Palestinians are not Amalek. Yes, Hamas is. And we shall not forget.
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